Posts about Columbia Pike
Not to be outdone by its neighbors' aggressive plans for rail and BRT networks, Fairfax County has an impressive transit plan of its own.
Now Fairfax has a major countrywide transit plan too, called the High Quality Transit Network. Top priorities are to finish the Silver Line and the Bailey's Crossroads portion of the Columbia Pike streetcar, but that's not the end of Fairfax's plans.
Both rail and BRT are possibilities for all those corridors. Some may end up light rail or streetcar, others bus. Route 1 and I-66 could even include Metrorail extensions.
In addition to all that, Fairfax County Parkway is slated for HOT lanes, which could make express buses a more practical option there.
As the DC region continues to grow, and demand for walkable, transit-accessible communities continues to increase, these types of plans are crucial. If our major arterial highways are going to become the mixed-use main streets of tomorrow, transit on them must significantly improve.
Fairfax is undeniably still spending a lot on bigger highways. Planners' inability to calm traffic on Routes 7 and 123 through Tysons, for example, indicates roads are still priority number one. But it takes a plan to change, and this is a strong step forward. So good on Fairfax for joining the club.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Watering can image from Shutterstock.com.
Streetcar opponents in Arlington have been arguing that better buses on Columbia Pike could provide as many benefits as streetcars, for much lower cost. This new study shows that claim simply isn't true.
Although streetcars on Columbia Pike will cost $200 to $250 million more than enhanced buses, rail will return $3.2 to $4.4 billion in economic benefits, compared to only $1.0 to $1.4 billion for bus.
This means the $2.2 to $3 billion worth of additional benefits from streetcars are approximately 10 times as great as the additional cost.
Arlington commissioned this new study to analyze the economic costs and benefits of streetcars and enhanced buses on Columbia Pike in a side-by-side, apples-to-apples way. The study also takes into consideration new data that's come out since previous studies, leading to more realistic forecasts.
An independent firm, HR&A Advisors, conducted the study. They took several steps, including literature reviews, case studies, and interviews, to establish the study's credibility as not advancing a predetermined outcome.
Enhanced bus isn't BRT
Streetcar opponents had hoped this report would demonstrate stronger benefits for buses, citing analysis from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) that examined the benefits of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) projects around the country.
The Columbia Pike study found that while many BRT projects do indeed have strong returns on investment, the conditions in those cities cannot be replicated on Columbia Pike.
Labels for transportation projects matter, and "enhanced bus" is not the same as "BRT." While the enhanced bus option on Columbia Pike would mean longer buses and off-board payment, these improvements wouldn't be enough to see the gains of true BRT. According to HR&A, citing the benefits of "full BRT" on Columbia Pike makes for "flawed comparisons."
The bus option costs more than earlier studies assumed
Although the streetcar option is more expensive than the bus option, the difference isn't as great as previously believed. The return on investment study notes some additional costs for enhanced buses that weren't a part of previous analysis.
Since the bus option would bring new articulated buses into the corridor, that would require building a new operations and repair facility for the buses somewhere nearby. Previous studies only counted a cost for a maintenance and operations yard for the streetcar, not for bus.
Also, adding more heavy 60-foot buses on Columbia Pike would require repaving the roadbed using more durable concrete, to handle the weight of the new buses. Previous studies assumed the streetcar would require roadbed and track construction, but didn't for the bus alternative. They had instead projected that buses would use the existing roadbed for no additional cost.
Enhanced buses are a good tool in many corridors, but the claim that they can provide equal benefits to streetcars on Columbia Pike should be put to rest once and for all.
Arlington voters will pick a replacement for county board member Chris Zimmerman in a special election
April 4 April 8. While the two candidates have a lot in common, their take on the Columbia Pike streetcar sets them apart. One calls it an important part of the county's transportation network, while the other says it's a waste of money.
Democratic nominee Alan Howze, who was selected in a January caucus, and independent John Vihstadt aren't that far apart on most issues. Both support the county's efforts on smart growth and affordable housing. They also both support the county's move to establish a new homeless shelter at Courthouse, and they agree on some national issues, like marriage equality.
But they're divided over the Columbia Pike streetcar, the 4.9-mile line between Pentagon City and Bailey's Crossroads which has the support of most of the current board, but strong opposition from some.
Vihstadt is a member of Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, an anti-streetcar group which argues the streetcar is too expensive and will not move as many people as estimated. If elected, Vihstadt would join board member Libby Garvey, who also opposes the streetcar.
He told the pro-streetcar group Arlington Streetcar Now that he wants to evaluate how BRT performs on the Crystal City/Potomac Yard transitway before committing funds to any project on Columbia Pike. AST has been advocating for Bus Rapid Transit on Columbia Pike, but their comments, and Vihstadt's statement here, glosses over the issue that BRT is not possible on Columbia Pike since there is no room for a dedicated lane, unlike for Crystal City-Potomac Yard.
Vihstadt would split the money dedicated to the project between buses on Columbia Pike and other projects throughout the county, which is appealing to some voters elsewhere in the county that want more resources spent on projects in their area.
Despite initially being publicly on the fence about the project, Howze does support the streetcar. He believes it will move more people and help support new development. In a position paper on the subject, he rejects the criticism that funds for the project will take away resources from other county priorities like schools, noting that schools take up half of the county's capital projects budget, and the streetcar hovers at around 10%.
But it's clear that calls to rein in county spending have had an effect on him. Howze has repeated that he's not someone who will just rubberstamp projects and not pay attention to costs. He says that "no project has a blank check" in regards to the county's proposed Long Bridge Aquatic Center. At a recent candidates' forum, he said the county spent too much money on a new dog park in Clarendon.
The special election's unusual date means that voter turnout will be low. Howze will have to count on Democrats being happy with the way the county has performed and the priorities it has set. Vihstadt, meanwhile, is banking on support from unhappy voters across the political spectrum who want to reverse or slow down the pace of some projects in the county. He says being the only non-Democrat on the board would be a strength, arguing the board needs more political diversity.
At the same time, there is a primary election coming up on June 8 to select a nominee to succeed retiring Rep. Jim Moran. That primary features many local leaders in Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax, which means it has gotten a lot of attention while many voters may not be focusing closely on the county board race.
Some observers think that by taking a reluctant stance toward many county projects, Howze may generate lower levels of enthusiasm among his potential supporters as compared to Vihstadt, who has been trying to appeal to various groups of voters that have a specific bone of contention with the current board. If few people vote and enough disgruntled Democrats in Arlington vote with independents and Republicans, Vihstadt is likely to win.
The victor will not have much time to rest, as the winner will have to defend his seat again in November's general election.
In 2013, Arlington began installing bike boulevards on the streets a block north and south paralleling Columbia Pike. The bike boulevards offer cyclists an alternative to Columbia Pike itself, which will one day have streetcar tracks.
What's a bike boulevard?
Bike boulevards are slow-speed neighborhood streets where cars and bikes share lanes, but which are optimized for bikes. They're quiet local roads, usually lined with single-family houses, where there's such light car traffic that separated lanes for bikes and cars aren't necessary.
Bike boulevards are common on the west coast, but as far as I know Arlington's 9th Street South and 12th Street South bike boulevards are the first in the DC region.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
In the ongoing debate about where and when to build streetcars, the topic of whether they should run in mixed-traffic or dedicated lanes is a major point of contention. But outside the ivory tower of the blogosphere, it's not an ideological question so much as a contextual one.
Virtually all transit advocates agree that both rail and buses run better when you give them a dedicated right of way. But since real life isn't SimCity, cities only dedicate space to transit where the geographic and political context allows.
For most cities, that means dedicated transitways sometimes, and mixed-traffic others.
But Stephen Smith, who blogs at Next City and Market Urbanism, has made it a point to categorically attack mixed-traffic streetcars:
STOP. BUILDING. MIXED-TRAFFIC. CURB-RUNNING. STREETCARS
— Market Urbanism (@MarketUrbanism) October 31, 2013
If primarily mixed-traffic streetcars are such a great idea, how come no other country on earth except the US is builds new ones?
— Market Urbanism (@MarketUrbanism) January 11, 2014
While the lines Malouff mentioned do at times travel in lanes with cars, these segments are, with one exception, very short.That's true. It's because European cities are starting from a stronger transit context than most US cities. Many of them still run their original mixed-traffic trolley networks, so they don't need to build those now. Meanwhile, with such convenient transit networks already in place, taking lanes from cars is more politically palatable.
Yet still, Stephen admits that European cities use mixed-traffic when the context is appropriate.
Of course that's what they do. That's what US cities do too. That's what everyone does.
That's why DC's east-west streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on H Street but will have a dedicated transitway downtown, why Arlington's streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on Columbia Pike but in a transitway in Potomac Yard, and why Seattle's South Lake Union streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on Westlake Avenue but in a transitway on Valley Street.
Context is why Tacoma and Houston have transitway streetcars, while Tucson and Atlanta will have the exact same vehicle models running in mixed-traffic. It's why Salt Lake City's "light rail" sometimes runs in the street, while its "streetcar" runs in an old freight corridor. And it's why Portland runs a mixed-traffic streetcar line and a dedicated-lane light rail one on perpendicular streets through the same intersection.
And it's why half the cities in Europe run a combination of mixed and dedicated trams.
That isn't an argument for or against mixed-traffic streetcars, nor for or against BRT, nor for or against anything. It's an admission that everyone builds the best thing they can based on the circumstances of where they are, who they are, and what they're trying to accomplish.
It's an admission that context matters, and we all make decisions based on real world constraints and opportunities rather than black and white dogma.
Don't use hypothetical perfects to ruin real life goods
Smith is right that every streetcar line in America that's planned to run in mixed-traffic would be better if it had a transitway. Every one. In the places where dedicated lanes aren't proposed, it's totally appropriate to ask why not, and advocate for their inclusion. Transit advocates should absolutely be doing that.
But if we don't get everything we want, we need not take our ball and go home. There are plenty of benefits to streetcars besides where they run, plenty of room for meaningful transit improvements even without a lane.
Sometimes there's a good reason for running in mixed-traffic. Probably not as often as it actually happens, but sometimes. For example on Columbia Pike, where Arlington is prohibited from taking lanes.
Even if the only reason is political, as it seems to be in Cincinnati, some places face such a monumental uphill battle to get anything transit-related done, even a single mixed-traffic streetcar can raise regional transit ridership by almost 10%. That's a huge victory in a place where holding out for something perfect would likely kill the project completely.
What transit advocates shouldn't be doing is falsely claiming that nobody except misguided Americans builds streetcars. It's not true and it's not helpful. Broad brush attacks lead others to pen bogus anti-rail screeds with misleading information.
So by all means, let's do more to fight for transitways. But in our attempts to do so, let's not tear down the places that for whatever reason are merely capable of making good investments instead of perfect ones.
For the record, the same argument is true for BRT. Sometimes it's the right answer, even though BRT creep, where costly transit features are stripped away to save money, is often a problem.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
One of the Columbia Pike streetcar's biggest supporters has been Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman. Now that he's stepping down, who takes his place could have a big impact on the project's future.
Of the four candidates running to replace Zimmerman in a special election this spring, one is opposed to the streetcar between Bailey's Crossroads and Pentagon City, while three others haven't shown strong support or opposition to it. But they are raising concerns about the streetcar's cost and the county's ability to manage projects like the million-dollar "Super Stop" and Long Bridge Aquatic Park, whose cost estimates are rising.
Meanwhile, streetcar supporters are gearing up to defend the embattled project. A study the county commissioned on the streetcar's economic benefits is due soon, and officials have yet to decide if it will once again seek federal funding to build it.
Streetcar looms over upcoming special election
One candidate for Zimmerman's seat, independent John Vihstadt, has already come out firmly against the streetcar project, citing it as one reason to break up Democratic Party control of the board. Vihstadt is a member of Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, an anti-streetcar group, and has the support of Libby Garvey, the sole streetcar opponent on the county board.
None of the three candidates seeking the Democratic Party nomination at its caucus in January have indicated their position on the streetcar. Alan Howze comes the closest, listing endorsements from many streetcar supporters on his website, including board member Jay Fisette and retired State Senator Mary Margaret Whipple who penned a pro-streetcar op-ed back in April.
Meanwhile, candidate Peter Fallon notes on his website that the county must support both transit and driving. And the third Democrat, Cord Thomas, recently told ARLnow that he wants more analysis before deciding on whether he supports the streetcar or not.
The Democrats' reluctance to support the streetcar suggests that while Arlington is generally known for aggressive investments in transportation, the party base may be reconsidering its priorities. But a streetcar on Columbia Pike has been in discussion for years, and it's hard to believe that a politically active person in Arlington doesn't have specific opinions about it. And candidates only have a few weeks to make their views known before the caucus.
Tejada responds to critics
Sitting board members are continuing Zimmerman's push for the streetcar. Chairman Walter Tejada recently wrote an op-ed defending the streetcar in the Washington Post. He responded to specific criticisms made by Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, particularly about the project's estimated $310 million cost.
Tejada noted that that figure includes streetscape improvements, new bus stops, and burying utilities, things that would benefit everyone traveling on Columbia Pike, whether or not they are on a streetcar. He also explained why AST's proposed alternative, Bus Rapid Transit in a dedicated lane, wouldn't work on Columbia Pike due to a limited road width and the Virginia Department of Transportation's requirement that there remain four general travel lanes.
But he focuses on the biggest advantage of streetcars over buses: the ability to carry more people over time. "The bottom line is not difficult to grasp: Streetcars have up to 100 percent more capacity than buses and attract more riders," Tejada writes. "Providing more capacity on fewer vehicles and substituting streetcars for some bus routes will minimize the impact of expanded public transit on the street network, allowing other modes of travel, including cars, to continue to move freely."
County waiting on new study
In September, Arlington commissioned a new study on the streetcar's capacity and its return on investment, with the results due any day now. It will likely influence whether the county tries to secure funding from the FTA's New Starts program after it was rejected for funds from FTA's Small Starts program back in April.
The county is making decisions for other aspects of the Columbia Pike corridor as well. Officials recently approved an affordable housing plan which allows for tax increment financing and the transfer of development rights, which could preserve and increase the amount of affordable housing in the corridor.
Next year, streetcar service will begin in DC. Arlington could soon follow, but only if current and aspiring county officials fully commit to it.
Arlington County board member Christopher Zimmerman will step down early next year to join Smart Growth America. During his 18 years in office, Zimmerman was an outspoken board advocate for public transportation and smart growth.
Zimmerman will become Vice President for Economic Development at Smart Growth America, a national advocacy group for sustainable transportation and development practices. In a press release, the organization said that Zimmerman will "focus on the relationships between smart growth strategies and the economic and fiscal health of communities."
A board member since 1996, Zimmerman also served on many regional planning boards, such as the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, the WMATA Board of Directors, the VRE board, and the regional Transportation Planning Board. Arlington will hold a special election to fill his seat next spring.
In a statement yesterday, Zimmerman noted that when he was first elected in 1996, now-common ideas in Arlington like traffic calming, bike lanes, and transit-oriented development didn't exist. Two of Zimmerman's signature accomplishments were helping to create the ART bus, which now has 13 routes in the county, and the Neighborhood Conservation Program, which provides money to individual neighborhoods to fund improvements and has brought sidewalks and streetlights to many Arlington neighborhoods.
More recently, Zimmerman has been an ardent proponent of the Columbia Pike Streetcar, part of a the larger Columbia Pike Initiative. That effort established a form-based code to turn the formerly suburban strip into a compact, walkable urban neighborhood, and set greater standards for preserving affordable housing in the area. These helped make Arlington an example for Smart Growth across the region and nationwide.
During his 13 years on the WMATA Board, Zimmerman relentlessly pushed for better service and for more rider-friendly policies. He was the strongest advocate for open data at Metro, which utimately helped convince the agency to publish its schedules, routes, and real-time vehicle locations in open, public formats. He also fought widening I-66 and I-395 and other efforts by the state to push more commuter traffic through Arlington against the county's wishes.
Zimmerman's departure means that's there will be a special election to replace Zimmerman this spring. It's likely that the Columbia Pike streetcar and issues relating to transportation and land use will play a big part in the campaign as they have in previous board races. Whoever hopes to replace them will have big shoes to fill as Mr. Zimmerman's influence will loom large in Arlington and greater Washington for years. Smart growth or public transportation advocates have their work cut out for them if they want to support a candidate in Arlington who is dedicated to those issues as much as Zimmerman has for the past 18 years.
Chris Zimmerman is one of the reasons why these debates happen in Arlington today. Now, we will see if his work at Smart Growth America will make this conversation more prominent on a national level.
The District is building a streetcar system while also studying the potential for express bus lanes in key areas. Montgomery County is looking at building a bus rapid transit (BRT) network. Arlington and Fairfax are planning a streetcar on Columbia Pike, while a BRT line is under construction in the Crystal City-Potomac Yard area.
It's easy to get confused about the differences between these various transit projects. Moreover, it's easy for opponents of certain projects to use this confusion to misdirect residents when comparing different types of transit projects.
Two weeks ago, for instance, Arlington County Board member Libby Garvey wrote in an op-ed that she opposes a streetcar on Columbia Pike and instead favors what she calls "modern bus transit." Unfortunately, nowhere did she define this term, which isn't a real name for a type of transit. Personally, I favor "Star Trek"-style transporters on Columbia Pike, which would be far faster than any car, bus or train, but those are just as nonexistent.
Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.
Last Sunday, Arlington County Board member Libby Garvey criticized the Columbia Pike Streetcar in an op-ed in The Washington Post, "Arlington streetcars fail the cost-benefit test." Contrary to Ms. Garvey's assertions, Arlington County is on the right track.
Ms. Garvey opined that streetcars won't improve transit on Columbia Pike and pointed out that buses can stimulate development as well as streetcars. She also stated that the streetcar does not have a proven track record of success.
Ms. Garvey asserted that the streetcar does not have the capacity needed to adequately serve the Columbia Pike corridor. Finally, she also informed us that she has studied the latest available information regarding streetcars. Unfortunately, Ms. Garvey may have skipped over some information that might clarify her thinking regarding the streetcar.
The streetcar is not a bus
Actually, there is a great deal of difference between a streetcar and a bus.
The streetcar has greater capacity. Ten streetcars do not equate to 10 buses. The current mayor of Toronto, Canada, recently campaigned on ridding central Toronto of its iconic streetcar system. He said they were too slow and got in the way of cars. Once elected, he found that he needed 550 buses to replace those 300 darn streetcars. Guess how far his proposal got?
The streetcar has greater acceleration and deceleration rates than diesel buses. This means that the streetcar can and does travel faster than the bus. It can do this because the electric motor is more efficient than the diesel engine. When America was fixated on replacing the streetcar in the 1940s and 50s, it was found that time after time it took about 13-15 buses for every 10 streetcars that they replaced, even though they both operated in mixed traffic.
Regardless of the capacity issue, a lesser number of streetcars can better meet the schedule simply because they are faster. The Columbia Pike streetcar will increase connectivity and thereby mobility options by providing better access to shopping, recreation and the Metro at Pentagon City.
Yes, as Ms. Garvey mentioned, people will have to transfer from the streetcar to other modes, principally Metro, if they want to continue their trips to other destinations. But the bus has that same issue.
Streetcars will foster more development
Ms. Garvey claims that there are some that say that only the streetcars can stimulate desired development. I know of no one who makes that claim. However, experts widely acknowledge that streetcars have an advantage over buses in sparking quality development.
While bus lines can easily be re-routed or discontinued, the streetcar represents a permanent investment in the community, something developers really like. The H Street, NE streetcar in the District clearly demonstrates this fact. Developer after developer has stated that the streetcar was a major reason why they decided to invest in that corridor.
The currently under-construction Cincinnati streetcar has already had a measurable effect of stimulating development in the Over-the-Rhine (OTR) community. The city of Minneapolis is planning a city-wide streetcar system. Dallas is building its first streetcar line.
Seattle's first streetcar line connecting downtown with the South Lake Union District has been such a resounding success that Amazon has offered to buy an additional streetcar to alleviate overcrowding. Seattle is also building a second streetcar line and is planning a city-wide network to complement its successful LRT system.
The Sugar House streetcar line will open in Salt Lake City this year. Officials there are especially pleased with the development spawned by the streetcar. Los Angeles voters overwhelmingly approved a downtown streetcar and the LA City Council just approved a long term (30 years) source of funding for operating costs. And in Portland, Oregon, an expanding streetcar network has and is stimulating development in the central city.
Right now across the nation, 10 streetcar lines are under construction (9 are new systems while one is an extension to an existing system). Maybe they are all misguided or, just maybe, they are confident in the evidence that the streetcar can draw quality development, generate significant ridership and integrate into the urban fabric to a much better degree than the bus.
"Modern" Bus Rapid Transit isn't an option, nor a desirable one
Ms. Garvey may have let the cat out the bag when she said that they (streetcars) would make traffic worse. And how would they do that? By impeding the automobile? Arlington County is trying to expand mobility options by upgrading transit and making it a more attractive option than having to use the automobile for even trivial trips.
While I personally would prefer that streetcar get its own right of way, an agreement with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) prohibits that.
Ms. Garvey identifies Cleveland's BRT Health Line as an example of fostering development with buses. However, the Health Line has its own dedicated lane, an option that's not available to Arlington for either bus or rail. This continues the trend from streetcar opponents of comparing the project to an impossible alternative while citing costs for much cheaper buses.
Besides, a number of analysts have concluded that much of the development along the line would have occurred in any event. The Health Line was built to LRT standards in many places to facilitate easy conversion when ridership justifies an upgrade. The Cleveland BRT line had a price tag similar to many streetcar projects ($30 million/mile). The HealthLine was completed in 2008 and carries about 15,000 per weekday.
Ms. Garvey says that Portland, Oregon and Tampa, Florida were strained by decreasing ridership and ballooning annual operating costs. Tampa's operation was partially funded by a trust fund that took a grievous hit during the recession. Tampa is a tourist operation, pure and simple, primarily geared to transporting cruise travelers/tourists between Ybor City and downtown Tampa. The Tampa streetcar was also recently extended to provide better access to the downtown area.
The Portland Streetcar has been shown to be a proven catalyst for development along both the original route and the recently opened extension across the Willamette River to East Portland. While the abolition of the fareless area in downtown Portland last year (through which much of the Portland Streetcar operated) has caused some adjustments, ridership has held up amazingly well.
Buses don't carry more people
I would take the greatest issue with Ms. Garvey's erroneous comparison of streetcar capacity with bus routes in other cities. She writes, "The best US streetcars carry a fraction of the number of riders carried by the highest-capacity US bus routes, even where the buses do not have dedicated lanes." Comparing the highest-volume US bus routes to streetcars is simplistic and has no relevance to Columbia Pike.
The Toronto example above is a good case in point. The Orange Line Busway in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley is strangling on its own success. The busway cannot expand capacity without adding another bus (and driver), which means that the busway will reach its full capacity, probably sooner than later.
A rail facility (streetcar or light rail) has the ability to easily tailor service to demand by simply training rail vehicles together, all driven by one operator. This is the reason why Ottawa, Canada, is building a light rail line to replace its existing busway. The number of buses trying to access downtown Ottawa is simply staggering. Simply put, they have a capacity problem and it will be solved by building a rail facility.
As conservatives, we believe that streetcars bring solid economic development, reinforce walkable environments, and encourage and cement cohesive, stable neighborhoods. Providing a viable, attractive alternative to the automobile also strengthens our national defense posture as it further reduces our reliance on foreign oil. The Columbia Pike streetcar will further all of these objectives. I look forward to seeing it become a reality.
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